The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

It's an inelegant but provocative means to measure Benjamin and Daisy's ostensibly transcendent connection: as he grows young and she grows old, they share but a single moment when their bodies and visions and hopes can easily coincide.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Director: David Fincher
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Elle Fanning, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemying, Elias Koteas, Jared Harris
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Paramount Pictures
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2009-02-06 (General release)
US Release Date: 2008-12-25 (General release)
Everybody feels different about themselves one way or another, but we all going the same way. Just taking different roads to get there, that's all.

-- Queenie (Taraji P. Henson)

"No need for anybody to suffer." As Hurricane Katrina bears down on New Orleans, Daisy (Cate Blanchett) lies dying in a hospital room, moaning softly. Her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) hovers over her, along with a nurse who comes in and out of the room, worried about her own young son while she's away from him during the storm. As the determined that Daisy not only not suffer -- at least in her final moments -- but also that she know how much Caroline loves her. As Caroline puts it, she's heard from a friend how painful it is not to be able to express that sort of love to a dying mother.

The notion of suffering is at the center of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. With the wind rising and the rain pounding against Daisy's window, Caroline makes every effort to ease her mother's distress, even as Daisy, old and wise, understands the futility of her actions -- the pillow plumping and the needle adjusting, And so, as she lies back against her pillow, her eyes rolled back and her breath shallow, Daisy makes her own effort, to instruct her kind and unhappy child in the ways of the world, to explain to her that even in pain, joy, generosity, and understanding are not only possible, but necessary.

Caroline learns her lesson by way of a most exhausted movie device, the framed flashbacks, here doled out in a diary written by Benjamin (Brad Pitt). If Caroline is slow to realize his import to her existence, you likely will catch on pretty much immediately, but still, the narrative and her place in it unfold most gradually, courtesy of Eric Roth's ponderous script. Inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald's considerably nimbler short story, Benjamin's story is multiply framed, first by that heavy-handed storm metaphor and then by the tale of a clock, made by a mustachioed engineer named Mr. Gateau. "Mr. Cake," smiles Daisy as she remembers what's on the page and the film slips back to 1918. The clock is born of his own suffering, that is, the loss of his precious son in World War I. As Mr. Gateau unveils the clock -- designed to loom over a train station and thus serve as a public marker for his grief -- he explains for his audience its most curious aspect, that it runs backwards. He's made it this way, he says, in hopes that "the boys we lost in the war might stand and come home again, home to farm, work, have children, to lead long full lives. Perhaps my own son," he sighs, "might come home again. I'm sorry if I've offended anybody. I hope you enjoy my clock."

Thus the movie sets in motion its primary theme, the intersections of suffering and time. It's not exactly enjoyment that's at stake, as the father's cheerless intonation speaks more clearly than his words. And yet, the Gumpish saga that follows is often enjoyable, as well as episodic and awkward. As Benjamin's voice takes over for Daisy's and overlaps with Caroline's, he recounts his birth at the end of the war, a fortuitous time, he's told, because it brings together peace and prosperity, those twin principles that guide policies and mask realities during Benjamin's lifetime. Here the gimmick of the clock jumpstarts the essential plot, as Benjamin emerges from his mother's womb and old man then ages backwards. The shock is too much for his father Thomas (Jason Flemyng), who instantly forgets his dying wife's last request that he ensure the baby "will have a place." In fact, the panicky dad deposits the child on a not-so-random doorstep, that of the old folks' home run by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson).

Diagnosed with "all the deterioration and infirmities" of an 80-year-old man, Benjamin seems destined to die right away, but she gathers him up and claims him as her own. Explaining him as the child of an off-screen sister unable to look after him, Queenie declares that despite his unfortunate whiteness, he is a "miracle." She proceeds to raise him amid her charges, old people in the process of dying. Though her own man, Tizzy (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), worries at her decision ("Are you right out of your mind?"), she embraces the utter difference -- the unique experience -- Benjamin embodies. "You never know what's coming for you," she says, a line that her son will repeat a few too many times.

Here again, the movie lays out a simple-seeming opposition in order to consider the complications that lie beneath. For Benjamin, every day is an adventure (and more to the point, a gift, as he was supposed to die during his first hours). The home, Benjamin says, is a "place of great routine," where his housemates create order out of their own impending chaos, seeking stability and reassurance even as he, a child in his short wrinkly body, seeks adventures -- tilting his wheelchair near the edge of the porch, hoping to see what’s "around the next corner."

Benjamin's adventures are interrupted by occasional returns to stormy New Orleans, where the unnamed nurse (Sonya Leslie-Shepherd), suffers not knowing what will happen to her child while she's stuck at work. But for the most part they take on a clunkily episodic shape, each moment in his time marked by a colorful figure -- tugboat captain Mike (Jared Harris, boisterous), say, or Elizabeth Abbot (Tilda Swinton, sublime), a married woman with whom Benjamin comes to adore. As he's out finding various fortunes, he writes home, leaving Queenie largely out of his experience (which is very too bad, as Henson is excellent and their intriguing interracial family, in the South as eras shift, is pretty much ignored).

Instead, Benjamin is intermittently focused on the love of his life, Daisy, whom he meets when both are children (her grandmother is living at the home) and who grows up to be a dancer, a career that grants her some measure of world-traveling on her own. Their romance gives the film an oddly conventional outline. The lovers grow close and apart, their brief perfect time together made painful by their knowledge that it is, indeed, brief, defined by the point when their ages match exactly. It's an inelegant but provocative means to measure their ostensibly transcendent connection: as he grows young and she grows old, they share but a single moment when their bodies and visions and hopes can easily coincide. But that suffering is what creates time, makes changes visible. If the romance reduces this concept, it also makes clear Benjamin's sense of himself as different each day.


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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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